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Supply-side branding

There’s no point attracting consumers in droves if shortages of staff and raw materials mean you can’t deliver
It is fulfilment that is the growing obsession of marketers today
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Who needs customers? Marketing’s longstanding obsession with the demand side of the equation – pandering to consumers, diligently working back from their ever-shifting needs, obsequiously striving to ‘surprise and delight’ – is beginning to look overdone.

True, the entire commercial edifice would collapse without them. But it will disintegrate nonetheless, piece by miserable piece, if the goods, services and benefits we promise to would-be paying customers cannot be supplied. It is fulfilment that is the growing obsession of marketers today, as they cast an increasingly anxious eye on the supply chains and the service personnel they always took for granted.

The voids, and the reasons behind them, are everywhere. Gaps on supermarket shelves for want of both primary ingredients and human stackers; waiting lists for cars, medical devices and technological products thanks to manufacturer shutdowns in China; cancelled flights because airport staff that were lost in the pandemic never came back; and call centre lines unanswered because, well, they always were, but now the employment squeeze has made it so much worse.

Marketers are unpractised at turning their talents to supply challenges, following decades of reckoning it was someone else’s problem. Operations, procurement, HR. You guys get it made, we’ll get it desired. Crude, but broadly true.

Yet marketers do, and ideally always did, have a role in the supply side of the transactional equation. As with the marketing of goods and services outward to consumers, it comes down to a fusion of substance and perception.

What can marketers do substantively to ease the pressure on supply chains? Well, they can start to get a bit more realistic when they show up for those innovation brand workshops. That could mean simplifying the new product ideas they come up with – opting for fewer ingredients in a new skincare remedy, say, to minimise the risk that a shortage of any one of them means shutting down the whole production line.

Workshop casting could also be changed. It helps to bring in people from operations or other supply-chain disciplines to guide and advise the marketing teams in their thinking. As long as these specialists are briefed to help solve problems, not simply raise them, it can make for brand innovation that doesn’t merely excite but stands a chance of being delivered.

Perceptually, marketers could recognise that managers of supplier businesses are people, too, whose order books can be prised open when the right brand is doing the asking. Brand perceptions won’t dominate decisions here, any more than they do with consumers, but when other factors are at parity, they can be a tiebreaker. If you’re one of a bunch of big brands chasing down the same three or four suppliers of eco-friendly packaging – a typical contemporary issue – the perceived sexiness of your brand name on their client list is going to count.

Where brand perceptions count even more, though, is when it is people themselves who are the resource most in demand. Here, it will pay marketers to remove their gaze from the consumer for a while, and turn their quest for insights and imagination to the human talent for which every other brand is competing. That might mean brand initiatives and messaging that cast a different emphasis from the normal, consumer-derived activity.

There was an interesting example of that earlier this year, when the financial services brand Halifax went bold with its championing of preferred gender pronouns. Would this upset its – older, more conservative – saver customer base? Maybe, but the brand showed it wasn’t to be swayed by that constituency. Its answer was, well, if you don’t like it, you can open an account with one of our competitors. For potential employees, though – younger, educated, liberal – it would have sent an altogether different message: this is your kind of workplace.

Being proficient at marketing has always meant having eyes and abilities everywhere: research, innovation, communications, customer acquisition, customer experience, customer loyalty, customer retention. If branding were a sport it would be the decathlon. The challenge of supply-side branding is just one more thing to add to a long and often mutually antagonistic set of exigencies.

For once it is not about understanding customers but being the customer. And it’s about being a customer to entities who have more than enough already. Who needs you, they seem to say. And here you are, once again, even when you’re seeking to put your corporate money into their hands, working out ways to surprise and delight.